Cyberpunk, 35 Years Later
35 Years After The Cyberpunk Movement: A Cyber World With A Problem Of Trust
“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” So begins Neuromancer, William Gibson’s debut novel published in 1984. Little did he know, 35 years ago, that this was about to become one of the best-known works of the cyberpunk genre in the world.
Cyberpunk, once considered a mere ‘subgenre’ of science fiction, took a life of its own after Neuromancer. It became a movement and held on to concepts coined by Gibson – such as cyberspace – which influence how we relate with technology to this day.
Plots in cyberpunk fiction tend to be set on a relatable, near-future Earth. Storylines focus on technological advancements and some sort of breakdown of social order. Much like postmodernism, cyberpunk narratives are sceptical about mega corporations and suspicious, even cynical, about centralised representations of power.
In Neuromancer, traditional government doesn’t exist. Power is held by the ‘Zaibatsus’, which are “the multinationals that shaped the course of human history” and made of “hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA coded in silicon.”
The similarities between Gibson’s 1980’s fiction and our 2019 world are many: the Zaibatsus could have easily been inspired by Google, Amazon, Facebook and other tech giants of today. The “hives with cybernetic memories” are like today’s cloud storage systems and data. The “vast single organisms” could refer to the unifying and homogenising quality of the Internet. The Zaibatsus’ “DNA coded in silicon” could stand for the tech giants’ presence in all aspects of our lives through our smartphones, wearable technologies, IoT devices, and the list goes on. All these things are indeed shaping the course of human history –and our everyday behavior.
Of course Gibson couldn’t have known this when he was writing Neuromancer in the early 1980s. Although he did say that, to his mind, his futuristic scenarios are the world we live in, “just pushed a little bit.”
Remarkable is also how Neuromancer’s multinationals come into power: due to a “gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism.” Makes you reflect on our conformity to the invasiveness of smart phones, or on the general acceptance of over-sharing on social media as normal behavior, and our dependency on apps and online platform to run errands and work. The gradual accommodation of the system, in our case, has reached the point where we can no longer conceive of life without its digital mechanisms. And we trust it with all the personal information we’ve ever shared online. No wonder the modern Zaibatsus are so powerful.
On Cyberpunk, Marianne Trench’s 1990 documentary, she states that never before Neuromancer had science fiction literature determined the way people thought and spoke about new technology. To put it in current terms: Gibson was a cyber influencer. His fiction offered concepts and predictions of a future that many identified with – and indeed couldn’t wait to help build. Hackers and tech enthusiasts saw in Neuromancer a way to explain how they felt about technology. More than that: it helped them identify their role in this new place called cyberspace, and in the postmodern world we seemed to be heading towards.
In the 1980s, cyberspace was a fictitious scenario. Today, we’re completely immersed in it. But most of us don’t fully understand our roles in cyberspace yet, and even struggle to pinpoint how much of it is even real.
Where are the limits between the digital and the ‘real’ world? How much of our online avatars are really us? How much of our data is really ours? And who is to decide what is appropriate in cyberspace when morals and behaviours in there often starkly differ from those expected ‘out here in the real world’?
The problem of trust
The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) addressed some of these questions by focusing on trust. Their documentary ‘In Data We Trust’ follows Edmund Lowell’s quest to launch a digital identity wallet called Selfkey. Lowell’s proposition is that we shouldn’t be obliged to reveal so much about ourselves online whenever requesting a service or buying a product. He urges people to think about how much private information we offer to mega corporations online and to ask ourselves: why do we trust them? He has a good point.
In an age when our every transaction online is being monitored by third parties, taking back control is very ‘cyberpunk-esque’: we’re questioning the implications of concentrating power on the hands of mega corporations and need a technological solution to a problem of social order. Solving this problem was precisely the original promise of Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency to have been invented to decentralise monetary transactions.
Cryptocurrencies are essentially money that isn’t printed by governments, exists exclusively in cyberspace, and is exchanged directly from peer-to-peer. The technology that enables this is Blockchain – a ledger of transactions (much like a bank maintains) that allows copies of those ledgers to be distributed among computers all over the world. These ledgers are always kept verified and updated with every transaction by a network of volunteers (who get cryptocurrencies in return). Blockchain is “essentially a way to buy and sell things online without Big Brother watching,” described Netflix’s series Explained.
Cryptocurrencies’ value is powered by citizens based on their level of trust in the currency. When people are willing to bet half a trillion dollars on these digital coins, what are they really investing on? They are betting on decentralisation, on autonomy, on an alternative social order that refuses to be controlled by Zaibatsus.
Satoshi Nakamoto could be a man, a woman, or a group of people. He invented Blockchain over 10 years ago and has managed to remain anonymous. Like Gibson’s heroic hacker cowboys, Satoshi solved a problem through coding. And like Lowell, he is extremely vigilant of his personal information online.
Although the sky is not yet a colour of television tuned on a dead channel (at least not everywhere), Cyberspace is here, and decentralisation has never been more palpable. Cyberpunk tends to feature the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its original inventors. Who knows what Gibson could have done with Neuromancer had he known about Blockchain, Big Data, IoT and AI… Now that we are living in a cyberpunk scenario, perhaps the next step is to address the question of privacy, security and trust online. But can these problems ever be solved by technology, when humans are the ones using it?
Written by Paula Magal for SeQure World magazine – Subscribe to ourfree cyber security newsletter for more content like this.